Even as they exploit the newest technologies, the Libby trial bloggers are a throwback to a journalistic style of decades ago, when many reporters made no pretense of political neutrality. Compared with the sober, neutral drudges of the establishment press, the bloggers are class clowns and crusaders, satirists and scolds.
This also was a theme throughout the Northwest bloggers' gathering I attended last week: We are nudging the mainstream press and media consumers toward an acceptance that objectivity is so 20th century, and that advocacy journalism is becoming the norm. (Now, we just have to figure out a way to get paid for it. But that's a different subject, and one in which bloggers who have salaried day jobs have scant interest.)
Objectivity was not always a mantra for American journalists; it really wasn't until the late 19th century that it became widespread, and even into the 20th century, some major American news outlets (such as the Col. McCormick-era Chicago Tribune) were openly subjective. But by the time I got to journalism school in 1979 in the wake of Watergate, absolute objectivity was the standard. In my callow youth, I believed it was not only possible but essential. I wound up leaving the newspaper business 16 years ago because I was no longer willing to suppress my activist leanings nor my desire to work for candidates whom I believed could create positive change.
But in an era where Fox News proclaims balance while acting as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration, and in a decade during which even the most establishment newspapers swallowed the evidence for an unfounded war, the ideal of journalistic objectivity has become a national joke. When pressed, many mainstream journalists - still smarting from being duped on Iraq - now concede that complete objectivity is impossible, but that fairness to all sides is still attainable. Yet "fairness" can lead to shallow "he said, she said" reporting, or (as in the case of the Iraq war or climate change) force reporters to give alternate viewpoints undue credibility when the bulk of evidence clearly is on one side.
Bloggers and other alternative media have blown the whistle on that squishy style of journalism, and the lid off the ideal of neutrality. Is this a good thing? Would it be better for our democracy if the major media embraced an ethic of expressed and explicit political leanings, so readers, viewers, and listeners would know the prism through which they are getting the news?